The moral economy of livelihoods, conceptions of wildlife, and curating fieldwork data

Leave a comment

“If I did not have this chamba [work] in conservation I would be cutting down tornillo [Cedrelinga cateniformis] and shihuahuaco [Dipterys sp.], making about 3 soles per foot. But it would be only for surviving, not for plata [cash]!”

photo (44)

A shihuahuaco towers over the canopy in a protected area in Madre de Dios. This emergent tree is a keystone species during the dry season when fruit resources are sparse for monkeys, peccaries, other mammals. Shihuahuaco, an ironwood in high market demand, is used as charcoal and is sought after in carpentry and parquetry (floorboard industry). A dissertation published in 2010 found that exports of shihuahuaco to China represent over 50% of Peru’s timber exports (see

I. Livelihood Diversification and the Moral Economy

The above quote was from a discussion while hiking in the jungle conducting participant observation with a man who depends on logging exotic wood and working in ecotourism/conservation to earn a living. One thing that might upend our understanding of local conservation in Amazonia is that while biodiversity conservation and natural resource extraction are often represented as ideologically contested (and driven by divergent material ambitions), these market sectors can be complimentary from the perspective of local labor.

photo (43)

A truck of confiscated lumber that was likely illegally logged is parked outside the police department in Puerto Maldonado. A recently published study found that 68.3% of all timber concessions in Peru were suspected of significant violations. More disturbingly, data indicate that permits associated with legal concessions are used to harvest trees in unauthorized areas. Read the open-access publication:

While hiking with “Franco” (synonym used to protect identity) we passed by a shihuahuaco tree which I used to spark a conversation about his earning potential in timber (a technique my advisor, Jeff Cohen, and Jason de León describe in a discussion about ‘object and walking probes’). As I described in the previous ethno-blog entry, participant observation has generated meaningful experiences with research participants and has helped me identify and pursue new research questions. One of these new intellectual curiosities relates to the moral distinction Franco made between “sobrevivir” (to survive) and “plata” (cash) to contrast his situation from those of others who profit exceedingly in natural resource extraction. This binary arose at least once before with another research participant, but how does the ethnographer navigate the vast corpus of fieldwork data that spans several months (or even years) to identify and locate reoccurring themes?

I will tackle this question and describe how I curate data from prolonged periods of fieldwork to identify common themes and issues that appear across time (see video below). I will also share a few findings from participant observation research in el monte (backcountry, or jungle) to demonstrate how previously collected ethnographic data can be mobilized to design well-informed questionnaires or interviews. This recursive approach is a quintessential aspect of doing ethnographic research; in the words of anthropologist Michael Agar (2006), At first you cast the net wide, but with time the focus narrows, within what you learned in those early wide-open days.”  As just one example of this “funneling” down process,  I now plan to use the binary of ‘surviving vs. profiteering’ that arose during participant observation fieldwork over recent months to generate structured interview questions that elicit local attitudes about capital accumulation in the extractive economy in Madre de Dios.

Future interviews based on findings from participant observation might include questions like: “What is the difference between logging to survive versus making a profit?” or “Is mining for profit morally reprehensible compared to mining only to support one’s family? Why or why not?” Another approach is to share my research findings with interviewees and ask them to address my overall question: “Why do you think some people make a moral distinction between logging to survive versus logging to profit?” These are just a few examples of questions I am currently drafting as I prepare to conduct structured interviews.


A caranchera moves large volumes of sediment to extract gold at a beach on the Madre de Dios River that has been cleared for mining. This image of semi-mechanized mining exemplifies what research participants mean when they say some people mine gold for “plata” (cash) or profit, to contrast their artisanal mining (smaller scale, removes less ore) as a means of survival.


I now turn to a different research finding to further describe how participant observation can generate new questions for ethnographic interviews. One of my overall research objectives in this project is to ascertain the cultural outcomes for local people who have shifted livelihoods from natural resource extraction to biodiversity conservation. With this in mind, I became increasingly interested in the ways people who work in the conservation economy conceptualize, relate to, and interact with the surrounding animal world. The logic goes that if conservation workers are to be custodians of wildlife and their ecosystems, then we would expect that their practices with animals and their conceptions of them would vary to some degree from people who work in natural resource extraction.

To give an example, one cultural outcome of working in conservation is dietary change resulting from a shift in moral attitudes about consuming meat from wild animals (and some ecotourism workers are even vegetarians). However, through participant observation (e.g. eating meals with park guards, conservation staff, ecotourism workers, etc.) I discovered that consumption of wild animals is still a discursive practice to which some conservation workers vehemently opposed and others described with great pleasure, even noting their favorite meals like sopa de motelo (tortoise soup), caldo de coto (howler monkey stew), huevos de taricaya (turtle eggs), chicharrón de huangana (fried collared-peccary rinds), among other dishes.

A group of white-lipped peccaries (Tayassu pecari). Peccaries are commonly hunted across Peru

A group of  white-lipped peccaries (Tayassu pecari, locally called huanganas). This species  lives in large herds of anywhere between 50-200 individuals and are frequently hunted across the tropics. Huanganas provide an important protein source for families who live in rural parts of Madre de Dios, such as in native communities and mining pueblos.

Hunting of wild animals was also a particulary interesting topic that yielded great insight into local meanings of conservation. For example, a former park guard who worked at Bahuaja-Sonene National Park described conservation as a means to increase local animal populations of huanganas (white-lipped peccary, Tayassu pecari) for game hunting, which suggests that for him ‘biodiversity conservation’ does not significantly differ from ideas of natural resource preservation/wildlife management.

Spider monkey, locally called maquisapa. 'Maki' means 'hand' in Quechua, sapa is the suffix for magnitude. Of the nearly dozen sympatric species in this region, Maquisapas are preferred by hunters because they are larger-bodied primates and thus provide a voluminous amount of meat. Recent conversations with conservation workers over meals has spurred me to develop interview questions to systematically ask questions about whether they continue to eat meat of wild animals after pursuing work in biodiversity conservation.

Spider monkey, locally called maquisapa. ‘Maki’ means ‘hand’ in Quechua, sapa is the suffix for magnitude. Of the nearly dozen sympatric species in this region, Maquisapas are preferred by hunters because they are larger-bodied primates and thus provide a voluminous amount of meat. Recent participant observation fieldwork with conservation workers has spurred me to develop interview questions about consumption of wild animals.

Coati (Nassua nasua), locally called 'achuni' -described by a few conservation workers as having extremely rich meat

Brown-nosed coati (Nasua nasua), locally called ‘achuni’ -described as having extremely rich meat

In addition to consuming and hunting wild animals, participant observation also led to new findings about  the domestication of wild animals (e.g. raising monkeys as pets), keeping captive animals to attract tourists at eco-lodges, and the use of metaphors comparing human behavior to particular animal species based on certain traits. For example, a few times while working alongside conservation workers I heard about the concept of cutipar, the phenomenon through which a person is “contaminated” by the characteristics of an animal, plant, or object (read more about cutipar here). While I have yet to learn the extent to which this idea is common across the mestizo population in Madre de Dios, the term “cutipado de pelejo” is sometimes used to call out a fellow coworker who is slow moving and has a lazy demeanor, like a pelejo (sloth).

To once again invoke the iterative nature of ethnographic fieldwork, returning to data from participant observation has generated new research questions to pursue through more structured, focused interviewing. Future interview questions might include: “Were you raised by your family with the idea of cutipar?” “Can you provide me with an example of when you were cutipado? What happened?” “I have heard that ‘cutipar’ is sometimes used simply to compare someone to an animal (i.e. not really invoked by someone who believes in the idea. Can you provide an example of this?”

photo (47)

Stencil art on the side of a school wall, and excerpt from the poem, El Río, by Javier Heraud, Peruvian poet who was killed at the age of 21 while in Puerto Maldonado. Translatation: everything is wood, condors, masks, rivers and dark honeysuckle.

So how might one look back at their ethnographic corpus of data collected over a long range of time to identify patterns and salient themes? To continue with the example of how conservation workers conceptualize, relate to, and interact with the animal world, I hone in on excerpts of text from field notes that pertain to hunting, food consumption, domestication of wild animals, among other related topics in which the subject of animals was mentioned (see video below). This kind of analysis takes a textual-based approach (e.g. word frequency, word co-occurrence, schema analysis, identification of metaphors and analogies, etc.), which is greatly aided by qualitative data analysis software, such as ATLASti, NVIVO, MAXQDA, NUDist (who comes up with these acroynms?), ANTHTOPAC, and so forth. For a table that compares features of different QDA software on Windows and Mac platforms, see this comparison. Also take a look at the comments section of this Savage Minds post to learn different perspectives on why some anthropologists use QDA to assist with their data. I use ATLASti because it allows me to also code photos and videos in addition to text files.  Instead of ‘dancing about architecture’ and trying to write up my approach to using QDA to code and curate data, I made a video that better elucidates the process. I also included a little original music to fill the space of dead air (though recording my voice in a rapidly developing town where a chorus of bulldozers fill the soundscape, I had to apply some noise-cancellation processing). Without further adieu, here is a crash course on using Atlas.ti with fieldwork data:


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s